James "Blood" Ulmer
Bad Blood in the City: The Piety Street Sessions
Sometimes I'm shocked at how white we actually are. By we, I mean white assholes, of which I reluctantly am one. I was in an online discussion not long ago about the blues, whether we need the blues anymore, and was frankly shocked with the outpouring of aggressive disinterest in it. There was some smack talked about only liking the "real thing" i.e. acoustic recordings that were recorded, produced and packaged for consumption by white college kids in the 60s and 70s, and how the current state of the blues consisted largely of white guys in Hawaiian shirts consorting with negroes on jam night and they weren't havin' it.
Ok fair enough. I'll admit I like the Mississippi John Hurt minstrel shows of the late 60's over anything by BB King, and the line between "blues people" and ParrotHeads is a thin one. But, the blues is still key. Notice when something comes along and knocks everyone off their ass, it has one toe in the blues. Jon Spencer, White Stripes, Kings of Leon, Black Crowes, North Mississippi All-Stars etc etc. The thing about the blues that resonates with everyone, and I mean everyone whether they want to admit it or not, is we all like to stomp. Our foot is a hoof and that backbeat is the yank on the reigns. And it's true that a lot of art, blues included, gets propped up past its prime by well-meaning people. That's fine. Did you think the season ticket holders were going to start investing in bottom-shelf local indie rock bands, filling the void that would appear should the blues die off like folks think it ought to? They'll just watch more TV.
I didn't quite realize the level of disdain white people still have for blacks until Katrina unfolded down the road from me. I thought we in the South had figured out race relations, despite our reputation. I knew we had the racism that was everywhere, but at least people aren't terrified of black people like they are, say, in Kansas City. I felt like I had hailed from Portland or something after I saw how whitey recoils there when black folks enter the room. But then when the city's large poor black population was looking for a place to roost, the veil was lifted to reveal a sheet. I spent most of my life on the skirt of New Orleans, and trust me, it was no well-oiled machine of class politics before the storm, but it worked in a strange, intoxicating way. It was a great place for a white kid looking beyond his subdivision boundaries to have at his disposal.
There's not a lot of talk about the city's recovery. A Google Earth shot will at first look like a New Los Angeles of swimming pool blue, until you zoom in to see it's the telltale tarps patching a city of sagging roofs. New Orleans is tenacious - the place has burned down a couple times, been overwhelmed by malaria epidemics, Mardi Gras brings every Midwesterner looking to give both public urination and public homosexuality a try for the weekend, yet it persists, and one of the more important blues albums of recent years, James Blood Ulmer's Bad Blood in the City testifies to that struggle and persistence.
Ulmer came to the few ears that heard him as the guitarist in the NYC avant garde scene that was not afraid to drop some Hendrix in his Ayler. Having worked with luminaries Ornette Coleman and Ronald Shannon Jackson in the 70s and 80s, he did much to bring blues, rock and funk into the mix, saving out jazz from being a complete museum piece. Come this new century, and Blood turned his ear more toward the blues, issuing a number of tremendous records, firing his incendiary heat-seeking guitar missile at the corny PBs-ization of that which birthed jazz and rock-n-roll.
Bad Blood in the City, I'll be honest, bears a touch of those PBS qualities. There is a sense of making-this-sound-bluesy in it, but I think if we are going to burden the blues with its own history, than we must allow it to make something out of that history, and this album does it. There are a number of loopy, slap bass funk numbers like "Survivors of the Hurricane" and "Let's Talk About Jesus" that fall into that gap between R&B that looses the authenticity set, but they should get their hands out of their pockets and put them in the air. R&B is about rejoice on an entirely personal scale, it has easy contours on which to grasp. It also has a rhythm deep enough that even the clumsiest of our demographic groups can dance to it a little. Blood's mix of downhome and uptown is calculated and palpable, the mark of an artist who knows how to give the people what they want with one hand and grab them by the throats wit the other.
The songs that hit me the hardest are the ones that wedge in with my love of north Mississippi hill country blues. His version of Junior Kimbrough's "Sad Days , Lonely Nights" is like a runaway train on fire, with George Clinton greasing the tracks. Hell there is even some goddamn jazz flute in there! Blood sounds like the words are being choked out of him by the continuum which he conjures here. It's a masterpiece. Also surprisingly a favorite is "Dead Presidents" a goofy juke joint lamp about money. I hear a lot of blues around these parts, and Blood can hold his water.
The real shit is Howlin' Wolf's "Commit a Crime" a powerhouse number that splits the timbers as it busts through the door in this reading. But really, nothing prepares you for the lament "Katrina" which fills up the song with sorrow just as steadily as those holes in the levee filled the city. When I go down there now, I can still see the water line on stop signs and buildings, a grim haunting black line that you see superimposed across everything, and that line is what runs through this song. Blood works up a remarkable moan by the time he gets to the end, as palpable as Janis Joplin at the Fillmore East or Charles Mingus on Blues and Roots. "All the water...all that water ...ew Orleans, she's not to blame....talk to the president...TALK TO THE PRESIDENT... it's a muttering response to the unfathomable. And this unfathomable needs to be heard. And the blues needs to be heard. I don't even care if you are "over" the blues. I am "over" you and yet I let you still exist, and thrive even. Nothing is gained by letting things die, that is cheap entropy at work, and we didn't evolve these large brains to give into The Process, did we? No, we didn't. I don't care if you go out and listen to the blues, I don't care if you give money to the Katrina effort or buy one of those red cell phones that is going to save the world. I don't care if you don't care. Your not caring is what's not interesting or relevant and that's what should die off, not the outpouring of suffering and compassion and humanity that still lives in the corny old blues.
All I know is I see more strip malls and highways and cell phone stores and cookie cutter neighborhoods going up that no one would miss should a plague from God come and destroy overnight, and yet one of the few cities worth a damn in this world still struggles to exist.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com
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